Posts Tagged ‘UK government’


Minister announces resumption of arms sales to Saudi Arabia used to cause so much misery in Yemen

It is sometimes difficult to keep up with government announcements.  On Monday 6 July, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced that a number of individuals would be subject to sanctions and banned entry to the UK.  Their assets would be frozen as well.  The UK is one of the major centres for money laundering and the City is the centre of a web of tax havens around the world.  City institutions are specialists in moving huge sums into secrecy jurisdictions thus enabling a range of criminal activities to go undetected.  Dominic Raab’s announcement was a welcome first step in clamping down on some of this activity therefore and has cross-party support.  In his statement he said:

He outlined human rights violations as those that contradict the right to life, the right not to be subject from torture and the right to be free from slavery, but said they were exploring adding other human rights and looking into including those guilty of corruption.

The Foreign Secretary outlined the individuals who will be sanctioned first.  These include those involved in the torture and murder of Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky (who the Minister concluded his statement by paying tribute to), and Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, as well as those responsible for the genocide of the Rohingya population in Myanmar and for North Korea’s gulags.  Statement in the House of Commons Website (extract)

All those countries named have been subject of Amnesty and other human rights organisation’s campaigns.

THEN on the following day, we have an announcement by the Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss, (pictured) resuming arms sales to Saudi Arabia.  The contrast is astonishing as one of the countries included in the Foreign Secretary’s announcement was – Saudi Arabia for the murder of Khashoggi.  The announcement followed a legal case last year mounted by a number of human rights organisations, who claimed that the weapons – especially jets – were being used by the Saudis to bomb civilian targets in the war in Yemen.  The destruction there has been horrific with thousands of deaths.  Hospitals, schools, clinics and wedding ceremonies have all been attacked.  Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is dire with torture common, religious persecution rife and the dreadful treatment of women.

The Court of Appeal found against the government because it did not show, in the Court’s judgment, the question of whether there was an historic pattern of breaches of International Humanitarian Law was a question which required to be faced.  Even if it could not be answered with reasonable confidence for every incident, at least the attempt had to be made.  It was because the government had not reached findings on whether specific incidents constituted breaches of IHL as part of an assessment of clear risk, under Criterion 2c that the Court of Appeal concluded that their decision-making process was irrational and therefore unlawful.

Liz Truss’s argument is that they have sought to determine whether these “violations” are indicative of:

(i) any patterns of non-compliance;
(ii) a lack of commitment on the part of Saudi Arabia to comply with IHL; and/or
(iii) a lack of capacity or systemic weaknesses which might give rise to a clear risk of IHL breaches.

We have similarly looked for patterns and trends across the incidents which have been assessed as being unlikely to be breaches of IHL and those for which there is insufficient information to make an assessment.

This analysis has not revealed any such patterns, trends or systemic weaknesses. It is noted, in particular, that the incidents which have been assessed to be possible violations of IHL occurred at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons. The conclusion is that these are isolated incidents

The decision to resume supplies has been roundly criticised.  Kate Allen of Amnesty said:

This is a deeply cynical move to restart business as usual when it comes to Saudi arms sales.  How the Government can seriously describe a five-year Saudi-led aerial assault on Yemen which has seen numerous examples of civilians killed in schools, hospitals, funeral halls and market places as a set of ‘isolated incidents’ is almost beyond comprehension.  This seems like an attempt to rewrite history and disregard international law.  The UK is bypassing its obligations under the international arms control framework. Its approach to this decision has effectively rendered our own protections meaningless.

Deeply cynical move – AIUK

 

Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade in a statement said:

This is a disgraceful and morally bankrupt decision. The Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and the government itself admits that UK-made arms have played a central role on the bombing.  We will be considering this new decision with our lawyers, and will be exploring all options available to challenge it.

The evidence shows a clear pattern of heinous and appalling breaches of International humanitarian law by a coalition which has repeatedly targeted civilian gatherings such as weddings, funerals, and market places.  The government claims that these are isolated incidents, but how many hundreds of isolated incidents would it take for the Government to stop supplying the weaponry?

This exposes the rank hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy.  Only yesterday the government was talking about the need to sanction human rights abusers, but now it has shown that it will do everything it can to continue arming and supporting one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world.


Criterion 2c.  Criterion 2c of the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria – which requires the Government to assess Saudi Arabia’s attitude towards relevant principles of international law and provides that the Government will not grant a licence if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

Picture credit: Pink News


We are not meeting at present but hope to resume activities in the Autumn.


Letter from Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty, to the Observer

We have featured on these pages the continuing scandal of arms sales to the Saudi regime.  Not only the destruction of large parts of Yemen these weapons are used for, but the fact that the Saudi regime’s repression of its own people and denial of human rights.  After China, they are the world’s second biggest executioner often following unfair trials and confessions extracted through torture.  But no matter, there’s money to be made.

Kate Allen discusses these factors in her letter to the Observer newspaper on Sunday 10 May 2020:

It is, as you say, long over overdue that the UK government put its relationship with Saudi Arabia on a healthier footing (Now is the time to distance ourselves from an odious regime, editorial 3 May, 2020).  For years, the UK has claimed behind-closed-doors diplomacy with Riyadh has been better than “lecturing” the kingdom over its appalling humans rights record.  Yet repression has only worsened including under the suppose reformer Mohammad bin Salmon.  Now virtually every human rights activist in the the country has either been locked up, intimidated in to silence or forced the flee the country.

We have sole Riyadh plenty of weaponry, but the UK hushed policy on Saudi human rights has sold the country’s embattled human rights community shamefully short.

The weapons are used in the war in Yemen the bombing of which has caused appalling damage to the nation’s infrastructure.

Attacks by the Saudi-led coalition have destroyed infrastructure across Yemen. Saudi forces have targeted hospitals, clinics and vaccinations centres.  Blockades have starved the population and made it hard for hospitals to get essential medical supplies.  Source; Campaign Against the Arms Trade

The UK is complicit: many of the Coalition’s attacks have been carried out with UK-made fighter jets, and UK-made bombs and missiles – and the UK government has supported them with billions of pounds of arms sales.

 


The Supreme Court in the UK has found against the government’s decision to provide information to the USA to facilitate prosecution for crimes carrying the death penalty

In a unanimous decision delivered yesterday, 25 March 2020, agreed that the British government acted unlawfully in providing, or agreeing to provide, information to the United States without seeking assurances that the death penalty would not be imposed.  The USA is the only country in the Americas which retains the penalty and we have highlighted in many of our posts, the poor legal process, countless mistakes and lack of proper protection for suspects during interrogations.

This appeal concerned two individuals, Shafee El Sheik and Alexandra Kotey (nicknamed the ‘Beatles by parts of the UK press at the time) who were alleged to be a part of terrorists operating in Syria and who were involved in the murder of British and US citizens.

In a press release by the Death Penalty Project they say:

It has never been in dispute that Mr El Sheik and Mr Kotey should face trial for the serious crimes alleged against them, but any trial, if it is to take place, should be held in the UK.  We intervened in this case because we believed the earlier actions of the UK government were contrary to its long-standing approach on the death penalty and could lead to a death sentence being imposed or carried out.  The importance of this decision is wider than just this case.  It has implication for any individual who may be facing the death penalty and concerns what assurance the UK government must seek before deciding what help or assistance it may give.  there are fundamental issues concerning the right to life.  Parvais Jabbar, Co-Executive Director 

It is interesting that one of the motives for leaving the EU was to ‘take back control’ and to be free of he judgements of the European Court.  Yet the government has shown itself all too craven when it comes to ceding power to the US justice system.

Arguments went on about where to prosecute them and the CPS had amassed a considerable body of evidence, sufficient for a trial to take place in the UK.  Amnesty is opposed to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances.  The use of the penalty was abolished in the UK over 50 years ago.

 


December 16th is the 50th anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty in the UK

At 8am on 13 August 1964, the last execution took place in the United Kingdom.  Two men: Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen were separately executed in Manchester and Liverpool.  The death penalty for murder was abolished in the following year 1965 and made permanent on 16 December 1969.  Northern Ireland followed in 1973 and the last hanging offence – treason – was abolished in 1998.  In the current climate however, the question has to be asked, how secure is this decision and will it last another 50 years without being repealed?

Many will remember some of the impassioned debates which took place at the time with concerns it would lead to a rise in the murder rate.  Indeed, the vicar of All Saints, Clapton in London, said at the time it would be a ‘wholesale license to kill’.  The police wanted to be armed if the bill was passed.  Despite its abolition, the homicide rate in the UK has remained reasonable static over many years.  The figures for the last 3 years for example are 721 (2016/17); 728 (2017/18) and 701 (2018/19).  (Source: Statistica).  

Amnesty is opposed the use of the death penalty for six reasons:

  1.  It is the ultimate denial of human rights and is contrary to the articles 3 and 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the right to life and the right not to be tortured or subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.
  2.  It is irreversible.  Mistakes are made and cannot be rectified.
  3.  It does not deter.  This perhaps is the strongest case made for its continued use yet many studies show it simply is not true.  Violent crime rates are not significantly worse in US states which use the penalty compared to those who do not.
  4.  It is often used with unfair justice systems.  Confessions sometimes forcibly extracted are a feature.  Clive Stafford Smith’s book on a particular case in Florida is instructive.
  5.  It is often used in a discriminatory way and you are more likely to be executed if you are a member of a minority group or if you suffer from mental health problems.  It is also racially biased.
  6.  It is used as a political tool to execute people who are seen as a threat to the authorities.

World wide

There has been a decrease in the number of countries using the death penalty according the 2018 Amnesty Report on the subject.  690 people were executed in 2018 in 20 countries representing a 31% decrease on the previous year.  However, these statistics exclude China – the world’s largest executioner – but where the number of executions, which is known to be vast, is a state secret.  Belarus is the only country in Europe still to have the penalty and executed at least 4 people in 2018.

The five biggest countries which still execute its citizens are: China; Iran; Saudi Arabia; Viet Nam and Iraq.  78% of all executions take place in the last four countries in this list (with the caveat that the China figure is unknown).  It is possible China executes more of its citizens than the rest of the world put together.

The Salisbury group monitors cases around the world and produces a monthly report.

United Kingdom

There has been a noticeable increase in rhetoric around harsher prison sentences and a desire to lock more people up for longer.  The current UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel has made a number of speeches and wants to see longer sentences, more prisoners kept in prisons for longer and generally supports a tougher approach to criminal justice.  She has seemed to support the death penalty although she denies that this is so.  Nevertheless, she is a powerful and insistent supporter of tougher sentencing.

A Parliamentary Enquiry has warned that UK citizens are at risk of the death penalty in the US – or of being sent to Guantanamo Bay – under a fast-track data sharing deal signed by the Home Secretary, as the result of an agreement reached with Washington last month, when the details were kept secret. It is said that the deal will give police and intelligence agencies speedy access to electronic communications sent by terrorists, serious crime gangs and white-collar criminals.   The House of Lords Committee has criticised the ‘asymmetric’ nature of the arrangement, which gives the US far greater powers to target UK citizens than vice-versa, and claims have been made that the UK will not be able to obtain ‘credible assurances’ that extradited suspects will not face execution. (Source: The Independent.)

Among the public YouGov polls reveal a mixed desire for restoring the penalty which depends a lot on what type of murder is involved.  So for multiple murders for example, 57% are in favour and 33% against.  Murder of a child shows 53% for and 31% against.  The ‘all cases of murder’ figure is 45% against and 34% for.

For crime generally in the words of YouGov ‘Voters are united: criminals should be more harshly punished.’  In the general population, 70% believe that sentences are not harsh enough which rises to 87% for Conservative supporters.  Further analysis for gender, age, location and social grade reveals only small differences.  The major difference is between Remain and Leave voters in the Referendum to leave the European Union (Brexit).  The statistic for all cases of murder shows that 64% of Remain supporters oppose the death penalty in contrast to 30% of Leave supporters – around double.  The support figures are even more marked with 51% of Leave supporters in favour of the death penalty and only 19% of Remainers.

It seems therefore that in the UK population, vengeful policies for dealing with criminality and for reintroducing the death penalty for some types of murder are still quite strong.  A conservative MP and former minister, John Hayes, asked the government last year to reintroduce the penalty.

Government policy has long been that we will not grant extradition to foreign countries if there is a risk of the individual being executed.  This policy appeared to be weakened last year by the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid:

Sajid Javid, […] has caused controversy in September by indicating that the British government is prepared to waive its long-standing opposition to the use of capital punishment by foreign governments, in the case of two alleged jihadi terrorists originally from Britain.   He has agreed to provide the authorities in the United States with intelligence evidence to assist in the trials of the two men without asking for the usual assurances that any convictions would not lead to the death penalty being imposed.  Human rights champions have widely condemned this decision as compromising Britain’s principled opposition to capital punishment and as setting a dangerous precedent.  Others, however, claim the two men involved deserve whatever they get.  So was the Home Secretary’s decision right or wrong?  YouGov 24 July 2018

Taken together, with members of the public wanting the return of the death penalty for several types of murder and an increase in harsher sentences; a weakening in the policy of not supporting the extradition to countries which execute people, and a desire to abolish the Human Rights Act, the reintroduction of the death penalty – although unlikely – may not be impossible in this country.  With the Conservative government returned last week with an increased majority, things are by no means certain. That it survives as a wish in many people’s minds is a worrying fact.

Sources: YouGov; Statistica; The Independent; Guardian, Parliament.co.uk, Amnesty International


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Hong Kong withdraws from the DSEI arms exhibition.  Tear gas supplied by Chemring used by the police

The protests in Hong Kong have been going on since 9th June 2019 and we have seen regular incidents of violent police actions to quell the demonstrations.  There have also been what appear to be organised attacks by thugs wielding bars and clubs with no sign of any arrests or indeed of police at all.

A statement by Amnesty following the July events said:

The violent scenes in Yuen Long tonight were in part because Hong Kong police chose to inflame a tense situation rather than deescalate it.  For police to declare today’s protest unlawful was simply wrong under international law.

While police must be able to defend themselves, there were repeated instances today where police officers were the aggressors; beating retreating protesters, attacking civilians in the train station and targeting journalists.  Alarmingly, such a heavy-handed response now appears the modus operandi for Hong Kong police and we urge them to quickly change course.   Man-kei Tam, Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong

The police have been using tear gas supplied by the UK company Chemring.  The firm has a factory outside Salisbury (pictured) although the cannisters are made by their plant in Derby.  It is still under investigation for money laundering, bribery and corruption by the Serious Fraud Office.

IMG_6942

Chemring factory near Salisbury.  The CS gas cannisters are not made here but in their plant in Derby.  Photo: Salisbury Amnesty

Following similar incidents in 2014 – the umbrella movement – it was thought that a licence to sell tear gas was withheld or at least under review but it seems as though the company was free to sell it to the Hong Kong police.  This is part of a wider government policy of allowing UK companies to sell weapons to all kinds of regimes whilst allegedly claiming to enforce a strict control policy.  Chemring were granted an open licence in 2015.  The former foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, recently withdrew the licence following the weeks of violence which makes inviting HKPF to the DSEI arms fair odd.  The firm’s human rights policy (2019) says:

[We will] seek to uphold all internationally recognised human rights wherever our operations are based.  para 3.14, 2019

Hong Kong police withdrew from the DSEI arms fare to be held this week having been invited by the Dept. for International Trade the minister for which is Liz Truss.  A statement by the department said:

an invitation does not imply that any future export licences will be granted to Hong Kong

Campaign Against the Arms Trade, CAAT said:

The UK government approved the export of an unlimited quantity of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong.  Police in Hong Kong have used tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon and batons to violently disperse protests opposing the new Extradition Bill.  At least six people have been taken to hospital after inhaling tear gas.

There have been many protests about this fair which invites a number of countries many of which commit a range of human rights infringements, use torture and in the case of Saudi Arabia are bombing civilian targets in Yemen.

The Omega Research Foundation established in 1990, provides rigorous, objective, evidence-based research on the manufacture, trade, and use of, military, security and police (MSP) equipment.  Such technologies range from small arms and light weapons to large weapon systems; from policing technologies and prison equipment to equipment used for torture, amongst others.  A recent tweet from them shows a photograph of a CS gas cannisters which appears to be made by Chemring.

The substance of the Hong Kong protests is that they do not want individuals to be extradited to China whose legal system is corrupt.  Britain has a delicate role to play in protecting the agreement with China for ‘one country – two systems’.  We wish to see essential freedoms in the ex colony to be upheld.  Our integrity is a key component in that.  As in so many other countries around the world, our willingness to sell arms and MSP equipment risks compromising that integrity.

UPDATE 5 June 2020  see also the firm’s alleged activity in selling arms to the Egyptian regime which commits many human rights abuses.  


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Sources:  Financial Times; CAAT; Morning Star; Guardian; Fieldfisher; Omega Research Foundation; Chemring website

 

MSF in Yemen

Posted: July 30, 2017 in arms trade, Yemen
Tags: , , , , , ,

A doctor working for Médicins sans Frontières shares her experiences of working in Yemen

Hella Hultin is a Swedish surgeon who is working for MSF in Yemen.  In the current issue, she writes of her experiences of working in Khameeer in northern Yemen.

We were about to do an appendectomy on a girl, but my Yemeni colleague thought I might be tired after the long journey.  So I sat in the operating room to watch.  Suddenly both our phones rang.  The voice on the other end was stressed asking me to come straight to the emergency room.

“Help! How do I get there?” I thought, while I quickly put on a white coat and hurried out, so fast the cats outside scattered in all directions.  “Emergency?” I asked the attendant outside, and was pointed in the right direction.

When I arrived, the Emergency room was full of people, both patients and relatives.  Many patients were being rolled in on stretchers from the ambulance entrance.  I was told there had been an airstrike and more injured would be arriving soon.  The injured were all covered in dust and dirt, and almost all had wounds from shrapnel.  Several had fractures of the arms or legs, and some had burns on their face and hands.

A desperate husband was running around the room screaming.  When I managed to get the interpreter to translate what he was saying, it turned out he was missing two of his children who had been caught up in the strike.  It’s not hard to imagine his anxiety.

We got to work and ended up operating all night.  We transferred two of the most seriously injured to a larger hospital for specialist treatment that we were unable to provide.

Hours later I made it to bed.  As I lay down, it felt like I’d been there for weeks.

We do not know from this account the nature of the airstrike but there is no suggestion that those injured are military personnel.  Accounts from people working inside Yemen are scarce as the Saudi’s have blockaded the country.  Only a few journalists have managed to get in and there was a radio report last week of BBC’s Radio 4 news (limited time podcast).

We cannot tie this account to a strike using British weapons but we are a major supplier of materiel to the regimeThe High Court recently absolved the UK government in a case brought by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.


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Good news on cluster bombs
Just before the Christmas holidays, the Government finally admitted that Saudi Arabia had indeed dropped UK cluster bombs in its bombing campaign in Yemen and in doing so, confirmed that our research was entirely correct.  When we alerted the UK government to this in May 2016, the Government strongly denied it, as did Saudi Arabia. This is a major victory for our research work and campaigning to keep the government under pressure on this issue. 

Amnesty joined with 100s of other organisations around the world to campaign to ban cluster bombs because of the risks they pose to civilians.  Cluster bombs scatter 100s of lethal bomblets that can continue to kill and cause horrific injuries long after the conflict has ended.  The UK rightly banned these horrific weapons and their use in Yemen provides yet more evidence of indiscriminate nature of the Saudi Arabian led coalition’s bombing campaign.

From Amnesty briefingcluster bombs


Independent judge-led inquiry into UK complicity in torture needed
No one should be subject to torture

Article 5: No one should be subject to torture. Image from the tapestry

Amnesty International believes that there is credible evidence that the UK has been involved in grave human rights violations perpetrated against people held overseas by other authorities since the attacks in the USA on 11 September 2001.

The UN Convention Against Torture states that ‘no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture’.  It also states there should be a prompt and impartial investigation wherever there is reasonable ground to believe an act of torture has been committed.

The Human Rights Act 1998 also prohibits torture under any circumstances, and that obligation implicitly requires a prompt independent investigation of credible allegations – the more so when there appears to be a ‘systemic’ problem.   The existence of evidence requires the establishment of an independent, impartial and thorough judge-led inquiry, now.  Credible allegations implicate the UK in torture or other ill-treatment, unlawful detentions and renditions.  Over the years, Amnesty International and others have documented cases of the UK’s involvement in these abuses, including:

  • UK personnel were present at interrogations of detainees held unlawfully overseas in circumstances in which the UK knew, or ought to have known, that the detainees concerned had been or were at risk of being tortured and/or whose detention was unlawful and even that they participated in such interrogations  
  • UK personnel provided information (e.g. telegrams sent by UK intelligence personnel to intelligence services of other countries) that led the USA and other countries to apprehend and detain individuals when the UK knew or ought to have known that these people would then be at risk of torture and/or unlawful detention    
  • The UK was involved in the US-led programme of renditions and secret detentions through, for example, the use of UK territory (e.g. Diego Garcia) and/or airspace    
  • UK personnel forwarded questions to be put to individuals detained by other countries in circumstances in which the UK knew or ought to have known that the detainees concerned had been or were at risk of being tortured and/or whose detention was unlawful 
  • The UK systematically received information extracted from people detained overseas in circumstances in which it knew or ought to have known that the detainees concerned had been or were at risk of torture and/or whose detention was unlawful.

Testimony
A number of individuals – including former Guantánamo Bay detainees – have spoken publicly about UK involvement in their mistreatment.  Shaker Aamer, who was released from Guantánamo in October 2015, after nearly 14 years without charge or trial, has said for example that a UK official was in the room when his head was beaten against a wall.

Binyam Mohamed

Binyam Mohamed

In 2008 the High Court confirmed that the UK, through its security service MI5, had facilitated the interrogation of Binyam Mohamed in the knowledge that his initial detention in Pakistan was unlawful. Then, during a two-year period, the UK continued to facilitate interviews conducted on behalf of the US authorities when it must have realised that Binyam Mohamed was being held unlawfully by a third country and knew or ought to have known that there was a real risk that he was being tortured.

Proper investigation needed

stop torture

Image: Amnesty Paris

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has now been given the task of investigating allegations of UK complicity in torture, but Amnesty International, along with many other anti-torture organisations including the UN, believes that the ISC is wholly unsuited to the task in hand.  The structural limitations of the ISC, particularly its lack of power and independence from government, means that any investigation the ISC conducts is unlikely to get to the truth, and cannot satisfy the UK’s human rights obligations. The ISC is not a traditional Parliamentary committee, even though it is made up of parliamentarians.  Ministers ultimately decide what evidence the Committee can see, with the Prime Minister controlling what it can publish and even who can be a member. Crucially, the government retains the right to withhold information considered to be “sensitive” or on grounds of national security from the ISC.  The definition of what constitutes sensitive information is extremely broad and notably includes information provided by a foreign intelligence agency which can object to further disclosure of that information.  Any Secretary of State can determine material is sensitive and in the interests of national security should not be disclosed to the ISC.

Poor record
The ISC has a poor record in holding the intelligence services to account. In 2007, three years after the rendition of the Libyan families, the ISC produced a report which said that there was “no evidence that the UK Agencies were complicit in any “Extraordinary Rendition” operations.”

Historical context
In July 2010, the Prime Minister promised to establish an independent inquiry into allegations of UK involvement in torture and other human rights violations with respect to individuals detained abroad in the context of counter-terrorism operations.  At the time, David Cameron specifically ruled out the possibility of the ISC carrying out the investigation, recognising that an inquiry led by a judge who is “fully independent of Parliament, party and Government” was required “to get to the bottom of the case”.

In 2011 the Detainee Inquiry was established, led by the retired judge Sir Peter Gibson.  Amnesty International and a number of other organisations felt that the Detainee Inquiry fell short of the UK’s international human rights obligations and domestic obligations under the Human Rights Act to fully and independently investigate allegations of UK involvement in torture and other ill-treatment.  Of most concern was that the government retained final say on what material could be disclosed to the public and that the protocol did not provide for an independent mechanism to decide on disclosure of national security material.

In January 2012 the Detainee Inquiry was suspended, after Scotland Yard announced a criminal investigation into joint UK/Libyan operations which had resulted in the rendition of Libyan opposition figures. Those investigations are ongoing.

In December 2013 the Detainee Inquiry interim report was published.  It highlighted that the evidence it had received indicated that UK agents were aware of abuse of some detainees by other governments and that the UK government may have been involved in rendition.  It outlined 27 separate issues that should be subjected to further investigation. Amnesty and others expected this to be followed by a proper full judge led inquiry.

Dominic Grieve QC MP

Dominic Grieve QC MP

Instead, on 19 December 2013, it was announced that the ISC had been tasked with examining allegations of UK complicity in torture and other ill-treatment of detainees held overseas, which had previously been the subject of the Detainee Inquiry.  In September 2015 Dominic Grieve was appointed as the new Chair of the ISC.  There is as yet no news on its work in this area.


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Why Eritrea?

In all the discussion about the relative merits of refugees from the various war-torn parts of the world, the Syrians are presently claiming most attention.  We all understand how dreadful their plight is, and so too those fleeing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the Sudan.  But Eritrea?  Eritrea is not actually at war with anyone (well, it’s in a face-off with Ethiopia, but wouldn’t dare to take on its bigger neighbor in a full-scale war), and the regime is in total control of the country.  So why the desperation of people to escape to Europe?  Indeed the British government has changed its view of the country in recent months to say that it is safe for asylum seekers to be returned home. The Home Office said:

its guidance on Eritrea is based on a careful and objective assessment of the situation in Eritrea using evidence taken from a range of sources including media outlets; local, national and international organisations, including human rights organisations; and information from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

However they have relied largely on a Danish report, the authors of which have disowned for its misinterpretation, and Eritrean government sources, rather than the reports of human rights groups.

The UK’s position is totally confused, as they are supposedly taking account also of a recent UN report, which would also give a somewhat different picture.  The report, by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, cites a raft of human rights violations – some, it says, which may constitute crimes against humanity – of a ‘scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere’. The report strongly urges continued international protection for Eritrean refugees fleeing human rights violations, and warns against sending them back to danger in a country that punishes anyone who tries to leave without permission

President Aferworki

President Afeworki

Following its independence in 1991, the country has lapsed into a total disregard for the rule of law.  Elections have been regularly postponed – President Isaias Afeworki has never faced the electorate – arbitrary detention is rife; torture is so common that the Commission concluded that it was government policy, and mass surveillance and neighbourhood spying is the norm.  Justice is arbitrary, detention conditions are appalling, and complete disappearance not unusual.  So far, so typical dictatorship but in Eritrea it is egregiously appalling.

The speciality of the state is that, under the pretext of defending the integrity of the State and ensuring national self-sufficiency, much of the population is subjected to open-ended national service, either in the army or through the civil service.  When they turn 18 or even before, all Eritreans are conscripted.  While national service is supposed to last 18 months, in reality conscripts end up serving for an indefinite period, up to 20 years in extreme cases.  Thousands of conscripts are subjected to forced labour that effectively abuses, exploits and enslaves them for years.  Women conscripts are at extreme risk of sexual violence during national service.

Many others – detainees, students, members of the militia – are also subjected to forced labour.  The report says

The use of forced labour is so prevalent in Eritrea that all sectors of the economy rely on it and all Eritreans are likely to be subject to it at one point in their lives.  The commission concludes that forced labour in this context is a practice similar to slavery in its effects and, as such, is prohibited under international human rights law.

The Eritrean Foreign Ministry inevitably claimed the Commission’s report contained ‘wild allegations’ which were ‘totally unfounded and devoid of all merit’ and charged the UNHRC of ‘vile slanders and false accusations’, without addressing any of the issues.  The British government have since modified their stance based on Eritrean assertions that military service will be limited to 18 months to 4 years, which would render it legal, but there is no evidence of this happening.

These widespread abuses have prompted thousands of Eritreans to flee their home country in search of asylum in Europe.  According to the latest estimates produced by Italian authorities, 32,000 Eritreans were rescued in 2014 as they attempted to traverse the Mediterranean – the majority of all migrants rescued by Italy’s comprehensive Mare Nostrum operation.  Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency has placed the number of Eritreans under its concern outside the country at more than 357,400.

This is the country we are intending to return refugees to as being “safe”.  The Government needs to think again.